A harmonium organ, a metronome on top of it, and a young girl rehearsing a well-balanced melody in a symmetric frame. To the rhythm of her song, the fragmented title appears and disappears. The harmonious timbre continues in a complementary color scheme of royal blue, sandy yellow and coral as we meet the household of Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and their daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). When Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), an old friend of Toshio, arrives on the family’s doorstep, the first shades of dissonance start to show.
The use of colors and melody to express the narrative and emotions is masterfully done. The colors pop, yet there’s a vintage feeling to it as well. The balanced colors are broken at the arrival of Yasaka, standing in the porch of his workspace in a blinding white dress-shirt. In Japanese culture white is a dubious color. It can both be used as a symbol of purity and as a sign of death and mourning. The harmony also changes audibly as Yasaka teaches Hotaru a new piece on her harmonium. Whether it’s joyous or ominous, we’re not quite sure yet.
Another ambiguous color is red. As Akie works on a flaming red dress for her daughter to wear at her harmonium recital, there are a couple of interpretations at hand. The first mood red invokes is anger, violence and danger. In this respect, the red dress can be read as a sign for the danger to come for the young girl. When Hotaru runs off in ecstasy after receiving the dress, you might start feeling worried with this knowledge in the back of your mind. As it is, the climax and turning point of the story is the image of Hotaru lying on the floor in her red dress, seemingly dead, when her parents find her with Yasaka at her side. On the other hand, red also conveys passion and desire so it could be read as a hidden yearning for passion of the mother. Akie works on the dress at night, and Yasaka notices her working on it. At one point, he even hands the dress to her. Has someone finally noticed her craving for intimacy beyond a mute dinner with her husband?
When the family and Yasaka go on a day trip to the river, the red thread continues. Wandering off together in the mischievous forest, Yasaka and Akie come across some red flowers. A good eye can spot this clue from miles away. And naturally, in 10 seconds, they share their first kiss. Right after this encounter, we see Akie finishing her red dress. The most important scene in the film also follows this rendezvous. Yasaka literally reveals his true colors as he opens up his white working overall to expose the fiery red t-shirt underneath. He walks towards Akie with a deliberate attitude and kisses her passionately. But the color red has a tendency to turn wild and he turns violent. She pushes him away, her blue and amber outfit softly radiating distance and insecurity.
At the river, green is all around. It’s the color of youth and nature, but has the aura of destruction. There’s a reason the color of the death curse in the Harry Potter movies is green. The destructive green initiates a vital twist in the plot. New information comes to light that Toshio was a culprit in the murder Yasaka got sentenced to jail for. While Yasaka talks to Toshio about his involvement, he shows his anger and motives for the first time. His words aren’t the only disturbing thing, the white and green color palette of the scene adds to the eerie feel of the moment. Later on, we see Yasaka against a background of rock shade grey as Akie takes a picture of her family on a lively colored blanket of blue and green. She invites him to join them on the blanket, a white spec in the colorful mix. An ominous sign of the terror to come.
As we jump forward eight years after the culminating events of the red dress, the lively-colored quality of the story is replaced by monotonous brown and grey. The routine of the family now revolves around caring for Hotaru who’s been paralyzed ever since the events eight years ago. Akie is a ghost of herself as she blends into the lifeless background of the family home. We never truly know what happened that crucial day due to the disappearance of Yasaka immediately afterwards. He only returns to screen in a haunting white hallucination. In this second part of the story, a new red threat is exposed to the family: the backpack of Toshio’s new trainee. As the events of the past reveal themselves to the family once more, dramatic events follow as we return to the river. In the ending scene almost every color has been drained from the screen. The river looks pale, the grass bleak, with a monochrome brown and grey. The ending shot shows the same image as the photograph on the colorful blanket: the family and the outsider, a faded memory.